On Nov. 30, a gunman walked into Oxford High School in Michigan and opened fire, killing four and injuring seven more. The gunman was only 15 years old. This shooting came at the end of one of the deadliest years for gun violence in U.S. history, with almost 45,000 gun deaths so far. Fighting against gun violence is not an easy task, yet shootings such as the one at Oxford High School show that the time for change is long overdue. Gun violence is always an anomaly — until it hits your own community, family or friends.
First, it is important to understand what gun violence means. It is violence in which a firearm (pistol, shotgun, assault rifle or machine gun) is used in a domestic or social setting to harm or kill civilians.
Gun violence is a threat looming over us that has culminated in one of the most horrific public health crises. Why? There is a lack of transparency and research in gun violence data collection. Not only is data limited, the background check process — which is meant to screen for mental health issues or other red flags — is glaringly deficient.
As passionate advocates of bringing transparency to gun violence data, we made it our mission to carve through the opacity and find true answers. We sat down with Dr. Marc Zimmerman, professor of public health at the University of Michigan and co-director of University of Michigan’s Institute for Firearm Injury Prevention, to hear about what he and the University are doing to effect change.
A young soul from the Jersey Shore, Zimmerman immediately showed a keen interest in our passion to create transparency and awareness for gun violence prevention. He has been doing work on youth gun violence protection for over 30 years. Five years ago, he submitted a proposal to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for funding for teenage gun violence research and subsequently received $6 million in grant funds “to advance youth firearm violence prevention research.”
Zimmerman pointed out the role of demographics in the issue of gun violence. Sixty percent of all firearm deaths are suicide, most in rural areas, and mostly by white men over the age of 50. This data begins to introduce the necessity for us to change the narrative to protecting mental health instead of blaming gun violence on mental health.
This is Zimmerman’s goal. Occasional national stories of mass shootings increase stigmas about people with mental illness, when in reality, shootings are a daily occurrence. They are a result of the lack of mental health background checks, medical intervention and money for research. Zimmerman is bridging this knowledge gap and bringing clarity to the youth epidemic of gun violence. For Zimmerman and us, anti–gun violence efforts are not about taking away the 330 million guns in America, but teaching safer gun ownership and ensuring stronger background checks. It is a public health effort specifically poised at saving lives.
To protect Americans, we need more data on how and why gun deaths occur. This data will lead us to solutions that can be implemented to protect youths, make gun usage safer and provide transparent information to our government and medical professionals.
Doctors are our first line of defense. According to Zimmerman, right now, doctors lack training on how to have a conversation with their patients about guns — including safe storage and maintaining strong mental health. When you walk into your doctor’s office, you’re asked if you use a seatbelt, if you wear a helmet and if you drink and drive. Similarly, you should be asked if your gun is locked in a safe location in your home.
Dr. Patrick Carter, a colleague of Zimmerman’s and co-director of the Institute for Firearm Injury Prevention, found that less than 5% of older adult firearm owners discuss safe storage with their physician even though older adult suicides account for more than 30% of all firearm fatalities. There is a disconnect between the data provided and the practices within medical offices to prevent suicidal deaths. More funding is required to train doctors on how to ask patients meaningful questions related to firearm safety. Firearm injury prevention starts with a conversation with a healthcare professional.
With more funding and training, we can give doctors the power to limit the number of gun deaths. Students and teachers are also able to change the conversation and stigmas around mental health and gun violence. Nobody understands this more than Linda Beigel Schulman. Mother of Scott Beigel, a heroic teacher who sacrificed his life defending his students during the Parkland shooting of 2018. Linda has worked tirelessly to push for policies such as red flag laws at a national level and has become a leader in preventing further gun violence. Red flag laws allow officials to temporarily remove a firearm from those who present a danger to themselves and others. This law could prevent shootings like these in the future. 19 states and Washington, D.C., have already enacted this law. Michigan has yet to pass it.
Schulman spends her days speaking with students, community leaders and advocates about her son’s story. By sharing her story with young people, she is trying to open the conversation and prevent another shooting. Zimmerman and Schulman understand the importance of mobilizing a population against teenage violence and cutting to the root causes.
For the first time in the past 20 years, the CDC and National Institutes of Health (NIH) have recognized gun violence as a public health crisis and have thus begun to award institutions, such as Michigan’s Firearm Injury Prevention Institute, funding. We need to keep this conversation moving forward, and to do so involves you.
Red flag laws are just one policy that you can help advocate in the state of Michigan by writing a letter or calling your state representative. Increasing mental health background checks is another issue that requires attention and advocacy to increase the conversation of gun safety in medical practices. From the lack of funding for data on gun-related fatalities to the necessary mental health focus that should be enforced in background checks to facilitating conversations within medical practices, there are many areas to leave an impact. It starts with having a conversation with your peers.
Alyssa Fletcher is a junior in the Ross School of Business. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Daniel Silver is a senior in the College of Literature, Science and the Arts He can be reached at email@example.com. You can reach the Institute of Firearm and Injury Prevention at this link.
Note from the Editor: In the 1/12/22 print edition of The Michigan Daily, this article was incorrectly published under the name Daniel Silvers. The correct spelling of the author’s name is Daniel Silver, as is reflected above.